Even in art school we knew about these cave images, but could see them only in small reproductions. Never-the-less, their mysterious power drew us to see experience the real caves in the Dordogne.
Archeological evidence demonstrates that the Cro-Magnon were already stone hut builders, weavers and tool manufacturers of antler tipped spears and handsomely hewed stone carving tools. They were also consummate artists who understood the concept of an image.
The sophistication of their cave paintings led Picasso to announce after his visit to Lascaux that they had “invented everything” (about picture making). That developmental profile makes them moderns like us. As such, we now assume that the painters had some sophisticated plan.
There is no evidence to suggest that the painters and their families (in groups between 25 and 50) lived in the caves, even if the hand prints show that from time to time the entire clan, including children, was present inside the caves.
There are hundreds of images in some of the caves sometimes in accessible underground channels, and occasionally in very narrow passages which would require crawling. Imagine dragging yourself down a half-kilometer channel on your belly with a tallow torch and drawing implements, knowing full well that the fuel for your light (burning animal fat in a cupped stone holder) was limited. Imagine too that your shortness of breath was a consequence of your exertion but it felt like there was simply not enough oxygen to breathe because you would, in fact, be using up the stale supply. Some expert investigators believe that the high carbon dioxide content in the caves made it likely that painters and company might have endured - or sought - the kind of altered state that results from such a mix.
FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE
The first lesson learned in touring the caves is really an old one. I have told my students countless times that reproductions via the computer screen, book plate, etc are transposed defanged images. They can not carry the freight which in this case is the dank air, cool temperatures, flickering light, the rock formations, interior spaces, the physical exertion, the surface energy and general mystery of the cave experience, plus the riveting paintings themselves.
After driving from Bilbao in Spanish Basque country to San Felix de Reillac in the Dordogne, we rested in a rented cottage and the following morning we took our first personal look in the Rouffignac Cave. It was the only cave we visited that had a tram. Feeling a little bit like we had wandered into a Disney set, we dutifully hopped onto our seats of simple benches on a flat bed on rails. The dour tour guide hit the accelerator and we were off to see about 10% of the six miles of underground galleries.
Most galleries are too narrow and too difficult for tourists to access. The only light was the hand held flashlight of the tour guide and an occasional spotlight which the guide would turn on as we approached an event. You haven’t experienced pitch black until you tour one of these caves. The interior of Rouffignac that we saw was quite large enough for the tram and the 15 or so passengers. No ducking required.
Scratches, finger marks, incisions, painted marks and even 19th century graffiti, handsomely painted bison and mastodons were all visible. Some of those scratches were made by cave bears. Imagine bumping into such a beast that stood close to seven feet tall and weighed over 1000 lbs. According to paleontological records, the cave bears and homo sapiens were in competition for those caves for a few thousand years until the bears disappeared in the great mega-fauna die off about 20,000 years ago. An early example of catastrophic competition for scarce resources and asymmetric warfare (brain power vs. brawn)?
The images were incised, painted and carved onto the cave walls. And Picasso was right. The images are willful and powerful. Decisions were made about which walls to paint and which animals to paint. Judith Thurman points out in her 2008 New Yorker article “First Impressions, What Does the World’s First Art Say About Us?:
“The painters had used perspective, a technique that was not rediscovered until the Athenian Golden Age; and a bestiary of such vitality and finesse that, by the flicker of torchlight, the animals seem to surge from the walls, and move across them like figures in a magic lantern show (in that sense, the artists invented animation). They also thought up the grease lamp—a lump of fat, with a plant wick, placed in a hollow stone—to light their workplace; scaffolds to reach high places; the principles of stencilling and Pointillism; powdered colors, brushes, and stumping cloths.”
Recent ideas suggest that the drawings were meant to be a means to gain access to spirits or gods who could then ameliorate their conditions. That is were the altered states idea comes into play.
It is simply much easier to believe that you are transcendent with the help of the darkness, the drums, the flutes, the high carbon dioxide permeated air and fervent hope. Aside from all these possibilities, however, just as when touring contemporary art galleries, we do not necessarily rely on methodical analysis in the midst of the experience. How do images grab you? In touring the caves, the intensity of the experience is immediate. The flickering light and the animated animals hint at transcendence. You are right there with your ancestors. The cave painters may have entered the caves looking for refuges, but then ritualized the process like a symbolic impregnation.